The audience is really watching two movies at Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. The first is a smooth, laconic, and thoroughly engaging retro-Western about a retired gunfighter who is drawn back into action-against his will, of course. William Munny (Eastwood) is a reformed sinner, a once-violent hooligan who married a good woman (she has since died) and gave up his outlaw ways. All this changes when he joins a small posse of bounty hunters to chase down two thugs who left a prostitute’s face slashed. Teaming up with his old partner, the affable crack shot Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), as well as a young firebrand known as the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), Munny is soon headed for the town of Big Whiskey. There, he’s destined for a showdown not just with the thugs but with Daggett (Gene Hackman), the wily sheriff who has pledged to keep violence from his streets—even if he has to kill folks to do it.
At the same time, there’s that other movie, the one, I suspect, that has inspired critics to pour forth a steady chorus of yippee-yi-yays. In Unforgiven, Eastwood is out to fashion a dark, revisionist update of his stoic macho persona. He wants us to gaze with awestruck ambivalence upon the quasi- sociopathic Eastwood loner, the steely enforcer who, somewhere within his clenched-teeth grimace, gets a charge out of killing.
The trouble is, the two movies don’t mesh. For most of Unforgiven, Eastwood gives us ample reason to cheer his character’s return to violence. At least one of the crooks he’s hunting is, as Dirty Harry might put it, scum. And during the film’s explosive climax, when Munny, his hatred finally unhinged, goes on a rampage, his actions grow out of a classic Western hero’s sense of honor (and survival). Only now we’re supposed to look at Clint, doing the same cold-blooded shoot-’em-up number he has done for 20 years, and think ah, moral ambiguity! A tragic figure!
Not quite. As an actor, Eastwood comes most alive when he’s pumping lead into people; his shades-of-gray moralism feels like a whitewash. What’s more, it’s impossible for us to judge the righteousness of Munny’s actions when the Gene Hackman character remains a muddled enigma: Is this sheriff, who regularly kicks and whips people, a closet sadist, a pragmatic lawman out to save lives, or both? By all means, see Unforgiven. Enjoy it for the handsome wide-screen vistas, the interplay of the actors, the classical sweep of its story line. Just don’t expect the new, soul-searching Eastwood to be any more dramatically convincing than the old.